Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gerbil Wheels

Five years ago was the last time I made my way through the three volumes of Gary Dorrien's history of American Liberal Theology. I thought it would be a good time to revisit it, and while I took a break to read Darwin, I am close to finishing volume 1, which leaves off the story at the end of the 19th century, as liberal Protestantism is ascendant. 

Reading history serves a variety of useful functions. Dorrien's work, in particular, reveals how little changed are the many conversations and arguments we Christians have had, both with ourselves and the country in which we live. In the 1880's, Theodore Munger and Washington Gladden were writing about the theological insights available to Christians who appropriate Darwin's theory. Discussions concerning American exceptionalism, American imperialism, racism, religious diversity, immigration, and social ills were carried out, by and large, in the same language, with the same set of assumptions guiding at least the most prominent advocates of various sides and factions.

So much of the discourse of American Christianity, both with its various branches and to the country at large, sounds stuck to my ears. There are those who reject critical readings of the the Bible for reasons that are precisely the same as those used two hundred years ago when the first tentative historical readings were being offered in German universities. The evolution/creationism debate is precisely the same, at least on the creationism side. Even debates and discussions about the relationship between the churches and their relationship to the larger society sound an awful lot like the same conversations the churches had then.

Far too many people seem stuck on ideological gerbil wheels, running faster and faster only to arrive nowhere. This can only stop when we realize that those who wish to carry on and continue such debates and discussions do so for their own purposes, most of which have little to do with the imperatives of the Gospel.

We in the churches, it seem to me, have an obligation to keep our eyes and our words upon that Gospel. Finding ourselves rehashing debates that occurred 130 years ago, in terms that have not changed, gives fuel to the larger cultural criticism that we Christians are more than a little backward, and even more than a lot irrelevant. We do ourselves no favors becoming lured in to the honey-traps set by those who have no desire to hear the word in new ways, for whatever motive.

There will always be those who rant and stamp their feet about all sorts of things, whether it's science or race or immigration or whatever. Rather than react, we need to preach the Gospel. Rather than answer questions, we need to state boldly the promise and hope we have in God through Jesus Christ. Rather than hop on the gerbil wheel yet again, we need to smile, grasp these folks in our arms and tell them we love them, and continue on the Way.

Virtual Tin Cup

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